November 30, 2007
I woke early on my first full day in Japan. I washed quickly and took the train around Osaka to Osaka station. There, I transferred to a train bound west to alight in Himeji, site of one of the few original castles extant in Japan.
As we approached Himeji, I could see the ancient castle rise up on the horizon. It cast an ancient shadow above the modern city.
In the stations, all signs pointed towards the castle. I needed no encouragement. I walked north up the main street, and then wandered east to a covered arcade which ran almost to the edge of the park surrounding the castle. Restaurants and souvenir shops lined the road. The leaves had begun to change, and they framed the white walls (its other name, Shirasagi, or the "White Egret" takes its name from these walls) of the castle beautifully.
I wandered around the grounds and along a building running along the edge of the inner castle walls. The town itself had risen along the lines of the ancient ramparts; when the train station was planned, it was only allowed to be built outside the outer walls.
The castle itself was a revelation. Lacking the reconstructed displays, I walked in slippers along the wood floors. Signs pointed to windows through which archers could shoot arrows, and slots in the floor where burning oil could be poured to thwart attacking armies. From the top of the building, there were sweeping views of the city. Below, I could see a legion of schoolchildren lining up to enter the castle.
Back on the ground, I decided to eat lunch in town and then visit a series of mountain temples nearby. I wandered into a restaurant recommended in the guidebook for its kaiseki cuisine. I asked the waitress what she recommended, and she pointed to a set lunch that she said was very popular. The woman seated beside me was eating it and another woman sitting along the wall had ordered the same. The food was tasty, but I saw the women on the other side of me had ordered a set lunch with fish, and I wish I had waited so I could have pointed to their set and ordered that.
At the bus station I asked about the bus to the temples. The woman told me that the cable car leading to the top was out of service. She motioned with her fingers. "Climb mountain." She held up one finger. "One hour." With the time it would take to bus to the base of the mountain and climb, I would have to return just as I reached the temple to return to town before dark. I decided it wasn't worth it. I walked back to the castle to tour the neighboring garden. It was plesant, the autumn leaves were reflected in the pools fed by waterfalls. But as I wandered the grounds, I longed for Kyoto. The next day, however, I headed in the opposite direction, for the city of Hiroshima.
November 29, 2007
It was a bumpy ride to Japan. The flight attendant warned us there would be turbulence. Even so, some passengers tried to use the bathroom even as the plane was jumping around. I sat in the last row, surrounded by packaged tourists.
The flight was a scant two hours, just enough for snacks and breakfast before we began to descend. On arrival, I moved quickly to immigration and watched the line stretch longer and longer behind me as planes let off more packaged tourists. Their guides waved flags to help them find their way.
I exchanged my rail coupon for a JR pass and took the train into Osaka. I checked into my hotel. The room was the size of three tatami mats. I put down my bags and took a quick shower and then made my way downtown. At Namba station I was immediately lost. I started down the Namba walk, a long underground shopping arcade, and then decided to emerge to see the ciy. I emerged at random and kept walking. Eventually I stopped to ask for directions to the Domburi arcade. I had been walking in the wrong direction.
The Domburi arcade was much as I remembered it. I stood in front of the giant animated crab advertising one of the more famous restaurants and looked down the street lined with neon signs. The guidebook described the scene as Blade-runner-esque. All it lacked was the rain and the replicants.
I ate a spicy miso ramen at a small stand. I couldn't figure out the mechanics of ordering until one of the waitresses pointed to a machine standing outside. You put your money into the machine and push a button beneath the picture of what you wanted. A ticket emerged, which you gave to the waitress after sitting down. The soup was delicious.
I went home early. It was confusing to be in an Asian country where suddenly couldn't speak the language. I would catch myself starting a sentence in Chinese, and then be lost as to what the Japanese words might be. Even when I studied the phrase book, I'd find myself still thinking in Chinese, the Mandarin erasing any Japanese I was trying to learn.
At the front desk of the business hotel I checked a movie out of their library and went back to my room. I undressed and put on my yukata and went downstairs to the public bath. There, I washed and rinsed and got into the tub. As my body unwound I stared at the pink tiles and let the hot water surround me. I was back in Japan, but my brain hadn't quite realized it yet.
November 26, 2007
I am in the Taipei airport en route to Japan, trying to beat the typhoons out of Taipei. It's been raining the past two days, and I spent the majority of my day yesterday indoors; first at home, and then in one of the underground malls connecting two Sogo department stores. Sophia met me for lunch and took me to a restaurant that originated in Tainan. She told me it was famous for its meat sauce. She said the story is that all the sauce is cooked in the same pot that has never been washed, allowing for the flavors to strengthen through the years. Of course in Taipei, they use a different pot.
The night before we ate at a ramen place near her house on a street lined with restaurants. We met up with Patricia and some of Sophia's friends who had just returned with her from hiking. They had spent the afternoon at a massage parlor. We ordered noodles according to thickness and size, the broth according to how viscous we wanted it. Sophia said it was the most Japanese ramen place she had found in Taipei. They had lined us up along the counter, and we took over the elongated space.
After dinner Ed went home to do homework and I joined Sophia and Patricia for a walk through one of Taipei's many night markets. It was raining lightly and somewhat late; the night market was sparsely populated. Sophia was looking for accessories, and kept searching for a particular stall. The woman there had made her her ring. When she found it, she discovered that the woman had far fewer silver pieces. She explained that the price of silver had gone up and she couldn't afford to stock as much. Patricia bought a charm bracelet, but Sophia was left with nothing.
We had warm liquified grass jelly for dessert and sat and chatted. Around us, the shops were closing. Neon lights continued to blink above us, but one by one, the shop lights dimmed.
November 25, 2007
Taipei Taroko, Taroko Taipei
Wednesday afternoon I met Ed and Tini at the Taipei main station. We had booked our tickets to Hualien separately and were hoping to sit together. We brought our tickets to the counter and asked to exchange them, but were told they were unable to accomdate us. The train was sold out. Walking to the platform I asked Ed what car he was sitting in. He said seven. I looked at my ticket: car seven. I asked him what seats. He told me 33 and 35. I had seat 34. We laughed and shook our heads, wondering what the ticket seller would have thought had she looked at our tickets.
The train ran along the coast. On one side we could see the ocean; on the other, green mountains rose up from the track. The skies in Taipei had been grey, and a light rain fell off and on.
In Hualien, the hostel manager met us at the train station. The streets were wet; she told us it had just rained. She dropped us off at the front door of the hostel and checked us in. She told us we were the only guests. I had the six person dorm to myself.
Along one wall of the dorm was a library of books. She told us that the English teachers had all put this together. Each book had a number; people were allowed to borrow books for $20NT each. The money went towards buying more books. She told us there were a number of foreigners living in the city studying Chinese. The majority of them stayed first in her hostel. The library was their idea, and she said it worked great.
After checking into our rooms we went off in search of lunch. The town looked very modern, but empty. As we walked, we discovered the main streets were blocked. We asked a police officer why and he told us to sit and watch. We wandered towards a main square and saw that a Japanese parade was about to advance on the city. We surmised it was a sister city situation where groups from a Japanese town had come to visit; later we wondered if it wasn't a push to increase tourism to Japan.
We watched the parade as crowds of people formed. I told Ed it felt like we were in a Chris Marker film. At one point, representatives from Hualien in whale hats danced by waving cardboard cutouts of whales. At another, women danced with CD's attached to their hands to catch the light. Towards the end of the parade, groups of men pulled a float carrying taiko drummers who hammered out a rhythm into the night.
We ate at a wonton place famous for having had a famous person eat there. There was no menu. Upon entering you just indicate the number of bowls you want. They were good, but nothing special. We left hungry, searching for the main factory that produced the mochi for which the city is famous.
As we walked, we ran again into the parade. The women with CD's walked by, then the drummers. Towards the end there was a float advertising Japanese onsen. Trailing this parade were a group of women dressed alike who seemed to be wandering aimlessly. Following them, further down the road, another parade seemed to follow.
We found the mochi place and sampled their wares before buying three bags to eat later and then decided to visit the night market. En route, Tini found a Vietnamese restaurant. She walked up to the counter peopled and started speaking in Vietnamese. They gave her blank looks. Ed asked if they were Vietnamese. They pointed to the restaurant next door.
The proprietor and cook of the restaurant was a Vietnamese woman who had come to Taiwan 10 years ago. She had married a Taiwanese man, and she said life was hard but she was used to it. Tini explained the practice of Taiwanese men using marriage brokers to find Vietnamese wives to me and said she almost did a story on it once. Tini asked her which soup was better; the woman told us not to get the pho. We ordered another soup, which was delicious.
The next morning it was raining hard. I woke up and looked out into the small concrete courtyard. As the dawn broke, it started to lighten. Ed said that the proprietor of the hotel offered to drive us to the train station to catch a bus to Tienhsiang, a small town nestled in the center of the gorge. We had booked rooms in a hostel there.
At the station we bought tickets for Taroko gorge. A taxi driver looked at our tickets and said we had just booked to the main gates but not all the way to Tienhsiang. I quickly exchanged the tickets. The driver went on to tell Ed that he could take a taxi and stop along the way. Ed remarked that the driver didn't have his patter quite down pat. He should have told us to return the tickets and that he would take us. Ed told him we already had tickets. The bus arrived and the driver melted away.
The bus drove around town picking up passengers and then headed towards the gorge. The driver had a raspy voice and wore black leather gloves and sunglasses. Ed said he looked like a gangster. I noticed he carried himself like Beat Takeshi. Ed said he must be a reformed gangster, doing this job as penance. He turned out to be an incredibly nice guy.
We drove through the gorge along narrow winding roads and through new tunnels. I remembered the road used to always follow the river, but someone later explained to us that the typhoons would create flooding in the area, making some sections of the old road unsafe. There was also an effort to separate the road from a walking path along the river.
We arrived at our hostel just before lunch. We dropped off our bags and ate a quick meal near the bus stop. I had asked the receptionist which restaurant was better and she said they were all of a piece. We hired a driver to take us to the start of the gorge so that we could walk back, sampling some of the trails en route. The day was overcast and mist clung to the mountains. It felt as though we were walking through a Chinese ink painting. A number of the paths and trails were closed and we made it back to town just before nightfall.
The next morning we decided to push on to Lishan. We ate breakfast and then walked to the station to catch the one bus up into the mountains. When it arrived, we found ourselves with the same driver. Every morning he leaves Hualien to drive to Lishan. At 3pm he makes the drive back along the winding roads, which are in various states of disrepair due to landslides.
The bus was packed, but he made room and soon we were off. As he drove he kept in constant communication with other trucks and buses along the road, making jokes, and letting them know where he was. As he passed cars, he'd indicate how many there were and on what km marker he had passed them. At one point we passed a car that had tipped into a gully and he called for someone to come lift them out.
He seemed to know every inch of the road and who lived on it. When a passenger asked to be let off at a particular km marker, he asked if he was going to meet with Ah . The man didn't know. It was his first trip up to start work on the road. The driver asked if he were meeting a heavyset man, but the passenger didn't know. The driver said he knew and when he pulled up he greeted the heavyset man with his name, and told him to take care of the new recruit.
In Lishan, we checked into a Swiss-style chalet called the Swallow's Castle overlooking the valley. Clouds hung over the high peaks, and we could see the valley from which we had come enshrouded in fog. We had passed through a tunnel to arrive in our current valley, and when we emerged the sun had been shining. The receptionist had studied for nine years in Kyoto, and I asked her to give me recommendations on what to do. She said there was far too much to do in Kyoto to be able to do it in a week. I told her to give me the highlights and she said she'd think about it.
The manager had spent 10 years in Ohio. He came back to help run the family business. Ed asked him about tours of the tea plantations and he said that it was problemmatic. The tea workers felt that he was making money off of letting people tour the plantations even though he wasn't and so there was some animosity towards foreigners visiting them. We asked him about where to eat for lunch and he pointed out the two places he would eat. He told us to avoid the rest.
After lunch we toured a well-kept museum devoted to the cross-island highway and a local minoirty tribe before walking back towards the center of town to buy fruit from the fruit-sellers (Lishan is noted for its mountain-grown apples and pearsthey're delicious, sweet and juicy). As the sun began to set we went back to our hotel and had coffee and tea in the lobby.
The next morning we rushed to take the only bus to Puli. The receptionist drove us down to the station in a borrowed car, apologizing for the condition (it was the van they use to carry groceries up to the hotel). We pulled in and found the bus. The receptionist asked around for the price and told us a man with a van was offering to take us anywhere in Puli for 400NT each (apparently around the same as the bus ticket). He was delivering some packages to Taichung and was passing through anyway. He told us he'd stop along the way too if we wanted. We agreed and climbed into his van.
We drove back up the road towards Taiyuling and then turned right. (The day before we had stopped there for lunch and Tini found another Vietnamese woman who had come to Taiwan by marriage). We drove on and up and at Hohuanshan were awarded glimpses of an amazing landscape, with clouds rushing down over the shoulders of mountains. A group of motorcyclists were parked at the pass as well; they were dressed as if to race.
Coming down off the pass we emerged out of the fog and had clear views of our surroundings. It was one of the most beautiful sights I had seen in Taiwan and we stopped at another viewpoint a few hundred meters down from the pass to admire the view.
As we descended, the air became more and more warm and tropical. When we arrived in Puli, we asked the driver to drop us off at the Chungtai temple, a modern Buddhist temple built just outside of town.
When we arrived, Ed likened it to what an intergalactic headquarters would look like in a B science fiction movie. He wasn't far off. Designed by the same architect who did Taipei 101, it looked reminiscent of that tower, if one had chopped off the top and added wings to it. We asked for an English tour guide, but none were available, and so our visit was limited to a few chambers. Ed found a nun who had known a friend of his who had taught English there. Ed decided he would return on another date after reserving a guide. Tini said it would be great if he could come with his friend.
We ate lunch at a delicious vegetarian restaurant just outside the front gate and then took a taxi back into town. We parted at the bus station; Ed and Tini were bound for Sun Moon Lake, and I was heading back to Taipei. I had plans with my relatives in the morning. I took a bus to Taichung and caught the high speed rail. All in all, it had been an exhausting day of travel.
November 20, 2007
Sunday morning I met Sophia at the Taipei train station. We bought our high speed rail tickets to Chiayi and soon were hurtling southwards. As we emerged from the tunnels outside of Taipei, the weather cleared. The weather reports broadcast on the LCD displays predicted warm days ahead.
The Chiayi HSR train station felt like an airport. The system had just been completed, and I was amazed at how clean and new everything looked. In the bathroom, the toilet paper ends had been folded into a triangle.
From the train station we had to take a bus for 45 minutes to reach the central train station. Sophia told me that the station locations were a result of various political battles and bribes, and were never convenient to the cities in which they lay. At the main station we asked about train tickets up the mountain, but they were sold out. We took the bus instead, which wound its way up past various sights and tea plantations to the village in which we were staying and I surprised myself by recognizing some of the landmarks on the way up from previous trips.
From the car park we descended to our hotel. The proprietor told us that the last train leaving for the Sacred Tree trails was leaving soon but if we hurried we could take it and spend the rest of the afternoon walking around the park. We climbed back up to the station and bought tickets.
The train cars were beautifully crafted out of wood, and the cabins smelled amazing. The air was fresh and cool, and a fog had descended around us. At the station, we asked a conductor the best paths to walk and he recommended on that lead up from the head of the train. The forest closed in around us, the trees a ghostly presence in the fog. Atop the mountain, a bell rang out and a temple soon appeared before us.
We walked past root systems that had been given names like the Elephant Head and soon arrived another temple said to be the highest in Taiwan. Groups of people were burning incense and paying their respects and we watched as the sun set and the skies grew dark. Sophia bought some beef with rice from a stall that was just about to close and we sat before the temple as people left eating our small repast.
Back at the hotel we checked into our room and took a quick nap. For dinner we ate at one of the nearby restaurants, a meal of mushrooms and bamboo shoots, a meat like venison and a chicken soup cooked with wine. We washed it all down with rice wine. In our room, we turned on the electric blanket and watched some TV before snuggling ourselves under the warm sheets. We'd be up at five to watch the sun rise.
The phone rang at five. I had been up earlier and was ready; Sophia climbed out of bed to wash up. On the street we bought man toh for breakfast. At five thirty a van pulled up and we piled in. It was to take us to a pass near Yushan, the tallest mountain in northeast Asia, to watch the sun rise. Along the way it stopped at various points of interest including one to see the sea of clouds. It looked a little more like a haze.
At the pass, people crowded along the side of the road. Vans and buses parked in a long line behind them. The drivers collected in various vans to talk amongst themselves, barely looking towards the horizon. A tour guide gave statistics and information through a bullhorn. He offered advice on how to shoot the sunrise, including F-stops for various stages. He then suggested ways of composing the shot. He pointed out the peak of Yushan and told us that a weather bureau had an office on a nearby peak to its left. He said that the staff worked on half month rotations, and lamented that the three of them were short one to be able to play mahjong.
At first we were disappointed, thinking the sun was to rise to our left, but as the dawn approached, we could see that the sun would rise right before us, just off the main peak. Our driver had given us thick tinted glass windows with which to look through at the sun, and I realized that if you put two together you could actually see the shape of the ridge cut out from the sun's yellow disk.
With the sun came warmth and Sophia and I basked in the glow as the rest of the people made their way back to their vans and left. She took photos of our shadows and when we were the last people on the pass, we made our way to the van and began our descent. We stopped at one more sacred tree, and climbed down a narrow set of stairs to a viewing platform where a woman pointed to the sun rising just above another ridge and remarked that we got to enjoy two sun rises in the same day.
Back at Alishan park, the van dropped us at the start of another trail head and we walked through tall groves of trees and to the Sister ponds, where we paused to take in the sun. A couple arrived and took photos of themselves in front of the trees using a tripod. We followed them down the path watching as they paused before each shaped tree system with names like "Auspicious Pig" and "Everlasting Heart." We continued down the mountain through the magnolia forest and to the Alishan House where we breakfasted on their terrace.
At the train station we bought tickets for the trip back down the mountain and went to the hotel to shower. We were ushered out of our rooms and with time to spare wandered back towards the car park to the various stores there. We sat in front of tea counter and sampled tea from the area and then walked to the visitor's center to look at the displays. We watched the 20 minute tourist video which showed how the train used a unique system of switchbacks which reversed the train's direction to climb up the mountain. It also showed a section of track which curved around 2 and a half times to navigate a certain area.
Unfortunately the top portion of the track which used the switchbacks was under construction and so we had to take a bus down to the first station to meet the train. The train was narrow and we crowded into our seats. The whistle sounded and with a lurch we were off. The landscape was beautiful. I lamented the fact that we didn't get to ride the train down from the top, in order to see the zoological changes as we descended through different temperate zones. All of a sudden there were groves of bamboo.
At Fenqihu, the train made a stop. We took photos of the old trains and bought boxed lunches. I had read about the train cakes that were famous in the area and went off down the old street looking for them. I assumed the train would sound a warning whistle before leaving, and I heard it just as I bought the cakes. I raced back towards the platform in time to see the train gaining momentum as it left the station. I gave chase for a while but gave up. Sophia called me to ask where I was. She had barely made the train, having to run and jump on the last car in order to embark. I told her what had happened and said I would try to meet her at the next station.
The stationmaster said that there was a bus leaving in 3 hours from the intersection just above the station. I walked up to a car park to see if anyone was heading down the mountain but it was deserted. I asked again at a tea shop by the intersection and was told the same thing about the bus coming at five and invited me to sit and have some tea while I waited. I walked to the intersection to decide what to do. A van pulled up and the driver asked if I were going to Chiayi. I said yes and he told me to get in the van.
He and his friend were going back home before embarking the next day for Beitou. They were temple craftsmen and had just finished a job on Alishan. They had also done work in Singapore, where he said they were treated very well. They both lived in Chiayi and were going to spend the night there. He offered me beetle nut. I politely declined and sat back as we raced down the mountain.
At the station, he refused my money, even after I asked him to donate it to the temple. They both laughed and the driver gave me his name card and told me to call him up next time I was in Chiayi. He would show me around. I called Sophia and told her I'd meet her on the platform.
When she arrived I asked her about the section of track that wound around two and a half times. She said she had fallen asleep for almost the entire duration of the trip. We took a taxi to the HSR station, and it sped along at twice the 70 kmh speed limit towards our destination. To our left, the sun was a giant orange ball sinking slowly from the sky.
November 19, 2007
Day trip to Jiufen
On Saturday I met up with Sophia for breakfast. On the way over to her house I walked through the weekend flower and jade markets. I was surprised at how well set up the flower market was. Sophia said that they started from Friday and worked the night through. When I arrived at Sophia's house she asked if Ed and Tini were up. We had planned a day trip to Jiufen, an old mining town and location of Hou Hsiao-Hsien's City of Sadness. I said they weren't. Sophia texted them the train times. They were up and we decided to meet in an hour at the train station. There wasn't time for breakfast.
Sophia and I arrived and bought the tickets. Ed and Tini joined us with minutes to spare and soon we were riding the rails north. We arrived at our station in an hour and disembarked. We walked through a small village looking for the hiking path that would take us through the hills from this mining town to the other. We passed by an old mill and through another small village and then up into the mountains.
The path became a well-marked stone walkway. In parts it had been washed out by landslides, and markers cautioned us to move quickly. Sophia had said that she thought it would be a simple walk. Under the hot sun, the constant climbing became a little less so, and I was ill-equipped for the hike having overdressed. I had perfect light hiking clothes in my possession, but I had left them in New York thinking that the weather would be much cooler.
We kept climbing through the verdant hills until we reached a set of stairs leading straight up to a road. Sophia's map seemed not to scale. We then walked up another path cresting the ridge, and we were awarded with a sweeping view of the sea and the small towns dotting the landscape. In the distance, we could see the city of Keelung. Nearby hills were dotted with temples, and below we could see Jiufen.
We descended quickly towards the town, which was teeming with Chinese tourists. The narrow roads were packed with cars and buses inching their way down. We passed through cemeteries and then made our way to Jishan Street where we were swept along by the river of people. The street was lined with stalls selling all sorts of snacks, and we quickly made our way to an ice stand for tsua bing.
Our mouths and bodies cooled, we backtracked to find a recommended fish ball place and sat and ate them with deliciously well-cooked noodles. Our bodies sated, we pushed back into the crowds. Tini saw a boy holding a sliced fried potato wound on a stick and stopped to ask what it was. His father told her to try it, but the boy was reluctant to share. A few stores down we saw the stand and Tini bought her own. We stuffed our stomachs to overflowing.
At the end of the street we passed a beautiful tea house and then started down the mountain. Turning off the main path we walked down some back streets, through a tunnel that once marked the entrance to the city. We continued walking down the paths as the sun set. At a bus lot, we came upon a local bus that took us to the train station.
At the station, a stage had been set up and a group of violinists were warming up for a performance. Their teacher busied herself about the stage arranging them for the camera. Parents were lined up in front taking photos. They played "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and Chinese songs. Sophia recognized some of them. We watched while we waited for our train.
Back in Taipei, we went home and showered then met up again with Sophia and her friend Patricia at Din Tai Fung for soup dumplings. The dumplings had incredibly thin skins and I was surprised they didn't break. For dessert, Sophia ordered red bean xiao long bau.
Patricia invited us back to her house and after a quick stop at a Russian restaurant for some deliciously smooth ice cream, we found ourselves at her place. She had been giving Sophia cello lessons and we entreated her to play for us. She sight-read "My Heart Will Go On," and then made Sophia play "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" for us. Ed remarked that it was the second time we had heard the song performed that day. It wouldn't be the last.
Patricia asked Ed and Tini if they would like to try; they politely refused. When she discovered I had learned to play the violin she asked me to try. She taught me "Twinkle Twinkle" and we played it as a duet. She then taught me "Frere Jacques," which we played in a round. Playing the cello was surprisingly satisfying; it had been so long since I had bowed an instrument.
Nearing midnight, Ed, Tini, and I were getting tired. We thanked Patricia and took our leave. Sophia went to meet up with friends at a bar. I went to bed.
November 15, 2007
Arrival in Taipei
The last time I flew to Taipei an uncle who was no longer my uncle picked me up at the airport. It was my first solo trip overseas. I was groggy from the flight and was concerned I wouldn't recognize him. He found me and helped me with my bags before leading me out into a night so humid that it felt like walking into a bowl of soup.
Last night, I arrived tired but in good spirits. Approaching immigration I started to wonder whether I needed a visa. I realized I hadn't really prepared for this trip. I said hello and gave my passport to the officer. He didn't respond. He took my documents, stamped a visitor visa in a crowded corner of a page, and waved me through.
I called Sophia from a pay phone. She had been circling the airport looking for parking. She said she'd pick me up in front of the terminal.
We drove along the highway into the city. The ride reminded me of Bangkok and, to a lesser extent, Cairo, with their superhighways connecting the various neighborhoods. The streets were deserted compared to what I had remembered. Sophia told me the crowds depended on the neighborhood.
Almost immediately she started talking about restaurants. She suggested a place specializing in Taiwanese food, and another that had the best soup dumplings in Asia. She called Ed to discuss our options. The hour was becoming late, and restaurants were starting to close. When I arrived at Ed's apartment, he told me of a place around the corner that had the best scallion pancakes he had ever had. He told me that there was always a line in front of the stall. I knew I'd eat well.
We met up again with Sophia on a street of small restaurants. The soup dumpling place had stopped accepting customers for the night. We decided to try a Chinese restaurant called Wind and piled into a cab.
The meal was delicious, including some of the best hollow vegetables I have ever had, served in a soy based broth. We chatted until late; the traffic dwindled. We left nearing midnight.
This morning I woke up early. I walked across Da An park and along an elevated highway to Sophia's house. Her sister let me in; Sophia was still asleep. I met one of her nephews who showed me his collection of stuffed bears, and we whiled away the morning stacking them into pyramids. He refused to go to school, and so Sophia and I brought him along to breakfast. She took me to one of the best fried dough and bread sandwich places in the city, and then we walked Calvin to his school. As we neared, he slowed down, complaining about the heat and how tired he was. We took a bus the last few blocks, and almost had to drag him to the door.
We ran errands the rest of the day, stopping for eel bento boxes at a restaurant famed for that dish. When ordering, we only had to indicate the size of the box we wanted.
In the afternoon, jetlag hit, and I took a nap at Sophia's apartment. We met up with one of her friends at a new Sogo department store and had coffee at another nearby Sogo. I was barely awake. I finally saw the crowds I had been missing. Sophia told me that it was coming towards the end of the department store's annual anniversary week and all the stores were running promotions.
She told me her brother had made reservations at a nearby Sichuan restaurant and we took the subway there. We arrived 20 minutes early, and I was tempted to take a nap on a bench in front of the restaurant. Looking over the menu, Ed was disappointed that they didn't have the true ma la Sichuan food. The waitress apologized and said that the Taiwan palette probably couldn't bear that level of spiciness. Ed settled on a noodle dish with four astrixes indicating their spiciest item; it wasn't so spicy in the end.
From there we went to have grass jelly at a place down the block. A line had formed and as we waited the line began to double back on itself. The grass jelly was placed on a bed of shaved grass jelly ice. I had mine with red bean, peanut, and sago. Afterwards, Sophia's brother led us to a new, well-decorated "art bar." I joked that all it lacked was an infinity pool to feel as if we were in Miami.The waitstaff was uncertain about the menu, and the drinks were weak. We quickly decamped to ReWine, where the head bartender had won regional mixology awards.
The bar was quiet, and we ordered our drinks. The mixed drinks were amazingly tasty. We played a few drinking games as other friends began to join our group. Nearing one, Sophia said she had to meet up with other friends at a club for a going-away party. I was waking up, but still tired. Jet lag was taking its toll. I said I'd be happy to sit in a corner at the next club, but Sophia said it would be jam packed. Ed wasn't feeling that vibe, and so we came home. I told Ed I wished the scallion pancake place were still open. He agreed and said it'd be perfect. I changed and admired the view, and prepared for bed.